Real estate agents never tire of repeating their well-known mantra: location, location, location. The importance of place extends, though, beyond selling a home. Location offers the key to understanding this Sunday’s Gospel.
St. Matthew reports that the Lord withdrew to the towns of Tyre and Sidon. That is, He departed the Jewish region of Galilee and entered the pagan lands of Tyre and Sidon. Today the Lord withdraws from those who should know Him well to a place seemingly without faith. And what does He find?
Here in the pagan lands of Tyre and Sidon the Lord encounters the Canaanite woman. Through the ages she stands as a model of prayer. Evidently, she heard tell of the Lord. Perhaps she heard of His teaching, His counter-cultural message. Somebody must have told her about His challenging word of conversion. I suspect the Canaanite woman heard of His miracles, His healings and transformations. Perhaps she heard of the apostles—men from every walk of life who left everything to follow the Lord. Perhaps she was moved by the example of His disciples who had abandoned sin, changed course, and now follow after Him.
However she came to know the Lord, today the Canaanite woman asks for mercy. She begs pity of the Lord. Jesus explains that His initial mission is to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. First, He must gather together the tribes of Israel and announce His Gospel to the Jews. But the Canaanite woman will not be deterred. She persists in begging the Lord’s mercy.
At first the Lord’s answer may startle us. Why doesn’t Jesus simply heal her daughter? Instead, He speaks the strong word: “It is not right to take the food of children and throw it to dogs.”
Like anyone who has ever prayed for something and struggled to hear an answer, like anyone who has asked how come God seems to draw silent, that is to say, for all of us, today Jesus provides the answer. He doesn’t give what we’re not ready to receive. He doesn’t give the best until it is ready to help us. St Augustine explains: “Christ showed himself indifferent to [the woman], not to refuse her his mercy but rather to inflame her desire for it.”
In the end, the Lord grants the request. Jesus heals the daughter. But He does so in His time. He does so once the woman’s faith is inflamed. When we grow in our dependence on God, when we desire more and more what God seeks to give us, then He acts. The woman’s faith and humility and especially her perseverance draw praise from the Lord.
The quality of prayer, in fact, can be judged by the extent to which one perseveres through time. No one praises fleeting love or passing interest. But persistent, persevering love is the object of poets, Saints and sages. The quality of our prayer—like that the Canaanite woman—will be judged not by outcomes but by faith, humility, and perseverance.
All this transpires in Tyre and Sidon. In the pagan lands, Jesus finds one who has heard of Him and humbly submits to Him. She humbly takes her place not among the first called of the Jews but among the pagans in Tyre and Sidon. Today, we can recall the Canaanite woman—the woman who perseveres in prayer. She comes from pagan lands, where faith was unexpected. But we only understand all this when we realize where she was. It’s location, location, location.